Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Colin Buchanan's American Journey

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Colin Buchanan's American Journey

Article excerpt


In autumn 1962, the British planner Colin Buchanan made an extensive eight-week tour of the United States. His purpose was professional and official, part of a major British government study to find appropriate planning responses to the long-term problems of urban motor traffic. Buchanan's intention was to learn and draw lessons from American experiences that could be applied to Britain, then becoming a massmotorised society. He also drew on other shorter visits to several European cities, mainly in West Germany, but also Stockholm and Venice. The resulting exotic knowledge was then integrated with a larger volume of British-based contextual, conceptual and practical studies that Buchanan and his working group had been preparing since spring 1961. The results appeared in late 1963 in what became the most important government planning document of 1960s Britain, Traffic in Towns. This report's analyses and conclusions have exerted a huge influence on British urban planning and have had a major international impact.

Yet although Buchanan's work stimulated much contemporary comment and has regularly been re-examined since 1963, relatively little attention has been given to the role that foreign examples played in shaping his thinking. Partial exceptions are Ward (2007) and Clapson (2013), who have given some consideration to this aspect within wider studies. This paper is, however, a detailed investigation of Buchanan's American visit and the part it played in formulating this seminal report. His other, briefer European visits are also considered but, because no original evidence has survived, the depth of possible examination is limited. By contrast, the available contemporary detail on the American visit opens a window on Buchanan's personal views and on contemporary British attitudes to the United States. In a wider sense, this investigation also becomes a case study of how urban policy knowledge circulates internationally and exogenous experiences can inform, and to some extent shape, city and national policy formulation. This connects it to a growing body of work within political science, urban geography and planning theory, as well as the more empirical studies undertaken by other planning historians.

This paper is based primarily within the latter disciplinary tradition and the documentary research on which it is based draws extensively on published and unpublished sources. The latter include Buchanan's own account of his American journey, other files from the UK National Archives and Buchanan's own papers recently deposited at Imperial College London. This article also makes use of contemporary and subsequent comment and draws on recent historical work about Traffic in Towns. Particularly important amongst the latter is Gunn's work (2011; 2013; 2015), setting Buchanan into the wider context of British social, urban and political history, while Bianconi and Tewdwr-Jones (2013) are the only previous authors to draw on Buchanan's own archives.

Researching foreign visits to gain urban planning knowledge

Buchanan's American journey was part of a well-established practice in all countries of using foreign knowledge and experience to inform the development of new policy ideas in the urban planning field. Sutcliffe (1981) first highlighted how learning from other countries played a key part in forming the modern international urban planning movement during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Visits were a central part of this learning, the earliest often incidental to other purposes such as business or attending international conferences or exhibitions. Increasingly, however, more focused investigative and official visits were being used, sometimes in conjunction with more specialist conferences, exhibitions or other events concerned with urban problems and policies (e.g. Saunier, 1999).

In recent years, such visits have become ubiquitous, attracting the rather derogatory label 'policy tourism', especially so in relation to much-visited cities with some iconic 'celebrity' status such as Barcelona or Bilbao (e. …

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